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A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism
By Colin Baker
Multilingual MattersCopyright © 2014 Colin Baker
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A1: What are the advantages of my child becoming bilingual?
Bringing up children to be bilingual is an important decision. It will affect the rest of their lives and the lives of their parents. For children, being bilingual or monolingual may affect their identity, social arrangements, schooling, employment, culture, marriage, area of residence, travel and thinking. Becoming bilingual is more than owning two languages. Bilingualism has educational, social, economic and cultural consequences.
There are many advantages and very few disadvantages in becoming bilingual. These are summarized in a table below. Some of these advantages are discussed in this answer. Other advantages that require detailed explanation are considered in separate questions in this section. Potential disadvantages are discussed in Section C.
Where parents have differing first languages (see Glossary at the end of the book), the advantage of children becoming bilingual is that they will be able to communicate in each parent's first language. Other bilingual children communicate with their parents in one language and with their friends (and in the community) in a different language. Other bilingual scenarios are possible and are considered later in the book.
For many mothers and fathers, it is important for them to be able to speak to the child in their first language. This may enable a subtle, finer texture of relationship with the parent. Many parents can only communicate with full intimacy, naturally and expressively in their first (or preferred or dominant) language. A child who speaks to one parent in one language and the other parent in another language may be enabling a maximally close relationship with the parents. At the same time, both parents are passing to that child part of their past, part of their heritage.
A bilingual child can bridge between generations. When grandparents, uncles and aunts and other relatives in another region speak one language that is different from the child's language, the monolingual child may be unable to communicate with such relations. The bilingual child has the chance of bridging that generation gap, building relationships in the extended family, and feeling a sense of belonging and rootedness. This is particularly obvious with grandparents. Compare a child who is unable to speak to their grandparents in their language with the child who has that ability. The intimacy of relationship, generational bonding and emotional attachment, the initiation into family history and tradition is strong when there is a common language, and weak where there is a disjoint in communication due to the child not speaking the grandparents' language. This is particularly the case when grandparents help as carers.
A bilingual has the chance of communicating with a wider variety of people than a monolingual. When traveling in a country, in neighbouring countries and in international travel, bilingual children have the distinct advantage that their languages provide bridges to new relationships. While a monolingual is able to communicate to a variety of people in one language, that monolingualism sometimes becomes a barrier to building relationships with people of other nationalities and ethnic groups. Being a bilingual enables a person to bridge between cultures, communities and countries.
Another communication advantage of bilinguals is when they are literate in two languages (biliterate). They can then access two literatures, opening up varied traditions, ideas, ways of thinking, feeling and acting. When there is biliteracy, reading novels and magazines, the writing and reading activities of home and education, the pleasures of writing to friends and the requirements of literacy in employment are all 'doubled' for bilinguals. Given that we are the 'Google generation', there is a wealth of information available electronically that is in a variety of languages. Being able to access information in other languages through the internet, for example, or communicating with others in more than one language in chat rooms and by social networking sites, is a relatively new and major advantage for bilinguals and multilinguals. A celebrated New York expert of bilingualism, Professor Ana Zentella, has a lovely Spanish phrase: 'la persona que habla dos idiomas vale por dos' [someone who speaks two languages is worth two people].
One of the advantages of a bilingual child and adult is having two or more worlds of experience. With each language goes varied understandings, wise folk sayings, valued stories, histories, traditions, ways of meeting and greeting, rituals of birth, marriage and death, ways of conversing (compare Spanish, Arabic and Anglo-American people when they are speaking), different literatures, music, forms of entertainment, religious traditions, ways of understanding and interpreting the world, ideas and beliefs, ways of thinking and drinking, crying and loving, eating and caring, ways of joking and mourning. With two languages goes a wider cultural experience, a stereoscopic view of their world and, possibly, greater tolerance of cultural difference and less racism (see Glossary). As Emperor Charlemagne (AD 742-814) suggested, "To have another language is to possess a second soul".
The monolingual also experiences a variety of cultures – from different neighbours and communities, who use the same language but have different ways of life. The monolingual can also travel to neighbouring countries and experience other cultures. Yet to participate and become involved in the core of a culture requires knowing the language of that culture. The bilingual has an improved chance of actively penetrating two language cultures.
Within any language, there is a kaleidoscope of cultures. Monolinguals may be able to experience the margins of the kaleidoscope of a different culture. To experience fully the inner colours and excitement of the kaleidoscope of a culture requires a knowledge of a language that that culture operates through.
One major difference between animals and humans is language. Through language, a child is cared for, cherished, cultivated and cultured. One barrier between nations and ethnic groups tends to be language, and it is sometimes a barrier to communication and to creating friendly relationships. Bilinguals in the home, in the community and in society can lower such barriers; they can be bridges within the nuclear and extended family, within the community and across societies. Those who speak one language symbolize that essential difference between animals and people. Those who speak two languages symbolize the essential humanity of building bridges between peoples of different colour, creed, culture and language.
Apart from social, cultural, economic, personal relationship and communication advantages, research has shown that bilinguals have the chance of particular advantages in thinking. Bilingual children have two or more words for each object and idea (e.g. 'kitchen' in English and 'cuisine' in French). This means that the link between a word and its concept is usually looser. Sometimes corresponding words in different languages have different connotations. For example, 'kitchen' in English has traditionally been a place of hard work (as in the phrase 'tied to the kitchen sink'). The French concept of 'cuisine' is a place for creativity, a place where the family congregate, not only to eat, but also to socialize.
When slightly different associations are attached to each word, the bilingual may be able to think more fluently, flexibly and creatively. Being able to move between two languages may lead to more awareness of language and more sensitivity in communication. When meeting those who do not speak their language particularly well, bilinguals may be more patient listeners than monolinguals. This is considered in detail later in the book.
There are potential economic advantages (indeed increasing economic advantages) of being bilingual. A person with two languages may have a wider portfolio of jobs available in the future. As economic trade barriers fall, as international relationships become closer, as partnerships across nations become more widespread, ever more jobs are likely to require a person to be bilingual or multilingual. Bilinguals and multilinguals are increasingly needed in the international retail sector, tourism, international transport, public relations, banking and accountancy, information technology, secretarial work, marketing and sales, the law, teaching and overseas aid work. Where a customer interface needs to be bilingual or multilingual, then bilinguals and multilinguals are in demand. Sometimes a bilingual's languages bring value-addedness to a job. Other times, such multiple language proficiency is essential.
Jobs in multinational companies, jobs selling and exporting, and employment prospects generated by globalism make the future of employment more versatile for bilinguals than monolinguals. In Wales and Catalonia for example, in particular geographical areas knowledge of the minority language is required to obtain teaching and administrative posts, and is of prime value in business and commerce. Bilingualism does not guarantee a meal ticket or future affluence. However, as the global village rises and trade barriers fall, bilinguals and multilinguals may be in a relatively strong position in the race for employment and promotion.
A2: Are some families better placed than others to produce bilingual children?
Some parents choose bilingualism for their children. For many other parents, bilingualism is automatic. In bilingual and multilingual communities, monolingualism is unusual, even peculiar. In such communities, children and adults need two or more languages to operate daily and successfully. In locations where bilingualism is the norm, families are well placed to raise bilingual children.
Irrespective of the type of community in which the family is placed, for a child to become fully bilingual there needs to be plenty of stimulating language experience (listening and speaking, and reading and writing) in both languages. Some families enable this to happen better than others. In such families, there is a natural and straightforward dual language pattern enabling both languages to flower. For example, when one parent speaks one language, the other parent a different language, and when the father and mother are both at home interacting with the child for considerable periods of time, the child may have plenty of exposure to both languages. Another example is where the child is learning one language at home, the other language in a playgroup, school or community.
There are other situations that are less likely to promote bilingualism. For example, if the father is away from the home for long periods and he is the source of minority language experience for the child, uneven growth in language may occur. When the child is in nursery school all day, and only hears the home language for a short time in the evening and at weekends, parents will find creating bilingualism a challenge requiring effort and enterprise.
In families where bilingualism seems more of a challenge than cloudless sunshine, language planning (see Glossary) is important. How can the language menu of the family be arranged to create the conditions for the long-term growth of bilingualism? This does not mean equal amounts of stimulation in each language. It is impossible to achieve a perfect balance in exposure to both languages. The minority or weaker language may need stimulating more in the home to counteract the dominance of the majority or stronger language outside the home.
Where bilingualism is more difficult to achieve in particular family situations, a well thought out plan of action is needed. It is important for parents to talk about their child's language development not only before, or as soon as the child is born, but also for constant discussion and monitoring to occur. Bilingualism will flourish even in difficult circumstances when there is a plan of how, when and where a child will be exposed to both languages to ensure both languages develop well.
When a child has insufficient experience in listening and speaking a language, a strategy is needed. The strategy needs to include a consideration of the quantity of exposure to each language and the quality. A child who hears one language for half an hour a day is unlikely to grow competent in that language. When a child is deliberately exposed to an ever increasing variety of language in different contexts (e.g. books, listening to cassette tapes, visits to the zoo and park), a realistic chance of bilingualism exists.
The quality of language interaction is important. In some homes, there is a paucity of communication between parents and children. There is also the other extreme. Some parents bombard their children with a never ending stream of language. The child listens but is not encouraged to talk except with short replies. Interesting questions to the child, asking the child to relate a story rather than always to be the listener, nursery rhymes and songs said and sung together, language games (e.g. 'I Spy', simulated telephone conversations), using role play (e.g. playing doctors and nurses, puppets, cops and robbers) are just some examples of ensuring that language development is active, alive and appreciated by the attentive child.
The 'bottom line' question is whether there are circumstances where bilingual development is nearly impossible? The answer is that bilingualism is possible in many different situations, if thought and care, pleasure and purpose are injected. It requires motivation and a positive attitude from parents, often considerable perseverance to achieve a distant goal, and a willingness not to expect too much too soon. Children's bilingual skills constantly change. They become stronger in one language or the other, as geographical and socioeconomic movement of families, changes in friends and school, and relationships within families all develop. There may be periods of darkness. For example, a teenage child may stop using their minority language at home. At other times, there will be top-of-the-mountain experiences. For instance, when a child translates or interprets (see Glossary) to help a monolingual listener, there is that sparkle of pride in the eye of the child and the parents.
Excerpted from A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism by Colin Baker. Copyright © 2014 Colin Baker. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgementsAn Introduction to the Fourth EditionIntroductionSection A. Family QuestionsSection B. Language Development QuestionsSection C. Questions About ProblemsSection D. Reading and Writing QuestionsSection E. Education QuestionsSection F. Concluding QuestionsGlossaryIndex